Chapter 3 is the (true) story of Nicodemus and Jesus’ and John’s discourses on the nature of our salvation.
Chapter 3 is to John what the Sermon on the Mount is to Matthew — it’s a presentation of the core of Jesus’ teachings. Indeed, like the Sermon on the Mount, it’s an extensive statement of Jesus’ message, placed there so that later in the book, John can refer to Jesus’ teaching without having to explain the substance of his teaching. Just refer back to chapter 3.
Thus, in passages that refer to the “truth,” the “word” (in the sense of Jesus’ teaching), or Jesus’ unexplained “teaching,” unless the context otherwise requires, we can confidently conclude that John has the content of chapter 3 in mind. Chapter 3 is John’s presentation of the gospel.
Just as the Sermon on the Mount frames all the rest of Matthew, chapter 3 frames the rest of John. And John’s teaching on the sufficiency of faith is repeated over and over in John, based on the extensive discussion of that point in chapter 3.
Now, we members of the Churches of Christ worry and get defensive whenever someone mentions “salvation by faith,” as though someone might have let a Baptist into church by mistake. But if that’s so, John is a Baptist. So is Jesus.
[For those new to the blog, I do not accept the Baptist doctrine of perseverance of the saints, which we’ll cover later in this series on John. I’m not pushing the Baptist point of view. Or the Church of Christ point of view. I’m trying to push John’s and Jesus’ point of view, which I believe doesn’t fit neatly into either camp.
[It’s a false dichotomy to assume that the truth is necessarily held by either the Baptists or the Churches of Christ, as though it’s not possible for them to both be wrong. Hence, you can’t prove one side right by proving the other side wrong. (Both sides are guilty of this error in logic.) It’s not that easy.]
Consider what John says,
(John 1:12-13) Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
(John 3:14-18) Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
(John 3:36) “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”
(John 5:24) “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”
(John 6:29) Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
(John 6:35) Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”
(John 6:40) “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
(John 6:47) “I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life.”
(John 7:38-39) “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.
(John 11:25-26) Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies;and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
(John 12:46) “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.”
(John 20:31) But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
John seems to think that this is a very important doctrine, indeed, the central theme of the Gospel. After all, I could double the number of quotes from John to the same effect. These are just the ones that are the most obvious.
Chapter 3 deals with Spirit and water baptism. But the central theme is the sufficiency of faith. Now, there are two exegetical challenges that arise when we notice what John is so obviously asserting.
First, what about James’ statement that faith without works is dead?
Second, what of water baptism?
These are valid, righteous questions, but they do not negate the Gospel of John. Ask them 100 times, and the verses I just quoted will still be in your Bible. They won’t go away, and they weren’t snuck in there by a Baptist while the Holy Spirit wasn’t looking.
Let’s deal first with James.
N. T. Wright explains in Christian Origins and the Question of God: Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 263, how “faith” was used by First Century Jews. He refers to a story told by Josephus regarding a Jewish rebel named Jesus (it was a common name, being a version of Joshua) –
I was not ignorant of the plot which he had contrived against me … ; I would, nevertheless, condone his actions if he would show repentance and prove his loyalty to me.
(quoted by Wright at p. 250.) Wright notes that the Greek translated “prove his loyalty to” is found in the New Testament, where it is translated “believe in.”
Josephus asked Jesus the Galilean brigand leader, ‘to repent and believe in me,’ in other words, to give up his agenda and follow Josephus instead. Jesus of Nazareth, I suggest, issued more or less exactly the same summons to his contemporaries.
The confusion results from the fact that the Greek word translated “faith” also can mean “trust in” or “be faithful to” (or be loyal to). And we find all three uses in the New Testament.
For example, the Greek word for faith, pistis, is translated faithfulness in –
(Rom 3:3) What if some did not have faith [pistis]? Will their lack of faith nullify God’s faithfulness [pistis]?
(Gal 5:22-23) But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness [pistis], 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
You see, we begin our readings by assuming “faith” is somehow divorced from repentance, when in fact “faith” means faithfulness as well as belief.
And we find “trust” as a meaning in such passages as –
(Heb 11:6 ESV) 6 And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
To believe that God rewards those who seek him is to trust God to keep his promises. That’s faith.
English can be the same. “I have faith in my son” could mean “I expect my son to honor his promises” or “I expect my son to be obedient” but not really “I believe my son exists.”
We want to use “I believe in Jesus” in the sense of “I believe in ghosts,” rather than “I believe in the Tea Party,” which means “I’ve committed to support the Tea Party” or “I trust the Tea Party’s principles.”
You see, we don’t have to know Greek to get this.
James uses “faith” in an ironic sense, meaning a false faith that does not produce works. He intends a scathingly ironic challenge to those who take faith to not require faithfulness and trust. I do not for a minute disagree with James.
But this means that “saved by faith and not by works” does not mean “saved by believing that Jesus exists and not by doing anything.” No, it means we are saved by meaning our confession of Jesus as Messiah ( = King) and Lord.
When we submit to Jesus as Lord, we bring nothing to the table other than our loyalty and trust. Obviously, we must believe he exists to be loyal to him and to trust him. But he demands much more than acknowledgment of his reality!
Thus, we are saved by our faithfulness and our trust. Not that “faithfulness” means we must attain to perfection or some secret standard. It’s about the heart. If hearts are faithful and loyal and trusting because of what we believe intellectually, we have saving faith.
We’ll deal with baptism in the next post.